Review of Lolita

Lolita (1962)
A failed adaptation of a classic novel
4 September 1998
The tag line, "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" seems appropriate because, in short, the answer is that they didn't. Kubrick, for all his touted genius, didn't come close to capturing the book on film. It hardly seems to have much to do with Nabokov at all, instead being off the subject and its own unique creature. Although some films can (and should) be viewed as divorced from their source material, I find it difficult to regard this production without comparing it to Nabokov's creation. I wonder why Kubrick interpreted it this way. Putting aside the possible controversy a faithful adaptation may have caused, Kubrick chose to emphasize the satirical elements and update it to 1960s culture. Of course, Lolita is aged a few years to make the relationship less shocking. As played by Sue Lyon (who looks much older), she comes off as a typical '60s teeny-bopper heroine. Kubrick seems to want to parody other movies of this period and the activities of that society and set. The music here is atrocious, especially the annoying love theme, which resembles swinging go-go music of the era.

The story wanders all over the place, hardly devoting enough time to central relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita. The plot is slight and unfocused, preferring to diverge off into subplots that distract from the main story and themes. When the occasional scene does follow the book (many occur in a strange, seemingly random-chosen fashion), it appears almost jarringly out of place with the rest of the action. By incorporating too many elements of diffuse black humor, the comic and poignant obsession angle is considerably diluted. The film is also hampered by poor performances by all the major players save Peter Sellers. James Mason is especially weak as Humbert, Shelley Winters is unequivocally annoying, and Sue Lyon is a completely uninteresting disappointment. Sellers' character of Quilty is allowed to dominate the movie so much, I questioned whether this was supposed to be his story. The Quilty character, which was essentially a minor through pervasive presence in the novel, is brought to the forefront here, and Sellers improvises wildly to create a particularly overshadowing creep. As a movie on its own, perhaps the Kubrick version works on some level, but it fails as an adaptation of Nabokov's novel.
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